There’s a piece in Inside Higher Ed: by Margaret Soltan called “No Field, No Future,” where she argues, basically, that English as a field is collapsing for a variety of different reasons, most of which have to do with the problems of critical theory. Personally, I have a kind of morbid fascination with arguments that claim the “end” of my field– well, sort of my field, as I’ll get to a moment. So I really wanted to like this piece. Alas, I didn’t.
First, I think it is mainly a rehashing of the same old argument about how, as the result of critical theory that no one really understands, English departments have lost their way. I have some sympathy with this argument– but just some, and more important, I’ve heard it many times before.
Second and more important, Soltan doesn’t mean “English;” she means “Literature.” Now, while I realize that in many English departments, English is the same thing as “Literature” (in the essay and in the comments that follow it on the Inside Higher Ed site, the idea of studying English at a “prestigious school” crops up again and again), but this is certainly not the case in many (maybe most?) other English departments. As I’ve mentioned before, my own department is called “English Language and Literature,” which for me is a useful way of saying that our department includes literature, but includes a whole bunch of other stuff: linguistics, English education (by far our biggest undergraduate program), journalism, public relations (I know those last two are kind of unusual in an English department, but Journalism has been in EMU’s English department since the early 1900s), creative writing, technical/professional writing, and composition and rhetoric.
These last two fields/disciplines/whatever– technical and professional writing and composition and rhetoric– are intriguing omissions from an article that is supposedly about the lack of a future for the “field” of “English.”
Why did she do this?
Is Soltan unaware of the fact that composition and rhetoric exists as a “field” usually within English departments? Possibly, but given that there are at least 50 PhD programs in Composition and Rhetoric right now (not to mention probably another 100 MA programs) and that nearly every English department in the country teaches a significant amount of first year writing, this seems unlikely.
Or is she saying, in a very indirect way, that English = Literature and ONLY Literature, and the fact that that is changing (and has been changing for, I dunno, 40 years) is a bad thing? I think so, but I’m not sure. In any event, if what she’s really saying is “Literature is a field that has no future,” well, she might have a point.